Baby, it’s cold outside

There’s nothing like a fire to warm you to the core, right? 
Wait — not so fast. Did you check to see if there’s a burn ban before lighting that fire?

Wood smoke is one of the main sources of air pollution in Washington. In the winter, it contributes to more than half of Washington’s fine particle air pollution.

What causes a burn ban?

In the winter, unhealthy levels of wood smoke in the air are caused by a weather pattern called an inversion that causes stagnant air to trap smoke close to the ground. The landscape and the number of homes using wood heat are also factors. When pollution reaches unhealthy levels determined by state and federal health-based standards, air quality agencies call an air quality burn ban to protect your health.

diagram showing what an inversion is and how it leads to poor air quality
An air quality burn ban (aka home heating burn ban) has two stages:

Stage 1 burn ban

  • No use of uncertified wood stoves or fireplaces is allowed.
  • No outdoor burning, agricultural, or forest burning is allowed. 

Stage 2 burn ban

  • No burning indoors or outdoors is allowed, unless wood is your only source of heat. 

Air quality burn bans last only as long as it takes to get air quality back to a healthier level.

What you can do

If you use wood to heat your house:

Health effects of wood smoke

Wood stoves and fireplaces give off hundreds of times more air pollution than other sources of heat like natural gas or electricity. The smoke and soot from burning wood contain fine particles and harmful gases, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and organic compounds. These gases can cause cancer and other health problems. The fine particles are so small that they lodge deep in our lungs when we inhale them and can cause serious health problems, including:

  • Asthma attacks
  • Bronchitis
  • Respiratory infections
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Lung cancer
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Heart attacks
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Stroke

Who is hurt by wood smoke?

Wood smoke can affect anyone, causing symptoms such as burning eyes, a runny nose, coughing, and bronchitis. Kids, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with existing lung disease (like asthma and COPD) or heart disease are the most sensitive to wood smoke. Research shows that obesity or diabetes may also increase a person’s risk of experiencing health effects.

Back in the day

Air quality agencies began limiting the use of wood stoves in 1987 to “control, reduce, and prevent air pollution caused by wood stove emissions.” In 1996, smoke from wood stoves made up 11 percent of our air pollution. That’s 231,000 tons of carbon monoxide, 75,000 tons of volatile organic compounds, and 31,000 tons of fine particles! By 1998, 10 counties — Benton, Clark, Franklin, King, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane, Thurston, Walla Walla, and Yakima — had air quality that exceeded federal health-based standards. Not all of these areas exceeded standards only because of wood smoke, but other types of air pollution add to the problem.

When an area exceeds federal health-based standards, it is called a nonattainment area. As recently as 2009, part of Tacoma-Pierce County was a nonattainment area because it consistently had unhealthy levels of air pollution from wood smoke. As of the end of 2017, all counties in Washington are in attainment with air quality standards.

Do your part to keep our air healthy, and keep air quality burn bans shorter and less frequent. We’ll all breathe more easily during the winter.